Is it ever right to ban an artist?

Is it ever right to ban an artist?


norman lebrecht

April 08, 2015

Some have detected an inconsistency between the widespread support for Opera Australia and La Monnaie in Brussels when they fired a singer for apparent homophobic comments, and the condemnation of the Toronto Symphony, which sacked a pianist for her Twitter campaign against the Ukrainian government.

What’s the difference?


Valentina Lisitsa had launched a Twitter campaign as a vehicle for Kremlin propaganda. Many were upset by her comments, at safe distance and without diminishing their appreciation for her artistry. Then, a small Canadian lobby group protested to the TSO. The TSO caved in to pressure. Wrong.

Tamar Iveri, the Georgian singer, allowed her Facebook page to host ugly and violent homophobic comments (she later ascribed them to her husband). Iveri was about to sing at the Sydney Opera House, where some of her colleagues happened to be gay and were directly, personally offended by her remarks, as were many others. The Sydney Opera took several days before deciding to remove her from the production. It did so in order to protect the production, the safety of its participants and the general tide of public opinion. It acted in a practical, rather an a political sense, and was right to do so.

When an artist constitutes a risk to others, the artist – like any other employee – must be asked to leave.

Lisitsa presented no risk to anyone’s safety.

There’s the difference.

tamar iveri otello



  • Simon S. says:

    Political debate must allow for controversy. If you ban anybody who disagrees with some of your political views, you’re the fascist yourself.

    However, I would certainly favour the ban of an artist who, say (let me put it this strong for the sake of the argument), publicly calls for the assassination of all Jews, regardless of his or her artistic qualities.

    So, yes, it can be right to ban an artist for non-artistic reasons. The question is, where is the limit?

    • Gonout Backson says:

      “Political debate must allow for controversy. If you ban anybody who disagrees with some of your political views, you’re the fascist yourself.”

      How interesting! Should we understqnd you consider that professor Faurisson and Mr David Irving should have the right to freely express their opinions?

      • Simon S. says:

        The right to freely express their opinions, sure. I don’t think it should be a government task to judge on opinions, how appalling they may be.

        But this is not my point. If the mentioned persons were artists, I would strongly support any other artist and any institutiuon who would refuse to work with them and I would certainly not attend any of their performances, regardless of their artistic qualities.

        As I mentioned before, there should indeed be a point beyond which it is legitimate to ban an artist on the ground of non-artistic criteria. The question is where to set this point. If you set the framework of tolerable opinions too narrow, you end up banning artists for their opinion on the Euro, on the ban on Cannabis or on agricultural subsidies.

        • Gonout Backson says:

          I’m very hapy to agree with you on everything.

          Maybe except one: I don’t think there is a way to define “a point beyond which it is legitimate to ban an artist on the ground of non-artistic criteria”. Let’s leave it to the better judgment of individual people – including those running orchestras, theatres and such.

    • Jeffrey E. Salzberg says:

      What about that’s being once removed? Hamas and Hezbollah repeatedly, stridently call for exactly that — the murders of all Jews. Should artists who support those groups be banned?

      • Simon S. says:

        I would certainly support anyone who refuses to work with someone who opnely supports these organisations for exactly the reason you have given.

  • william osborne says:

    There might be an disconcerting implication here: to make sure that artists are banned whose views we do not like, we should threaten people’s safety so the ban will be justified.

  • MacroV says:

    I think your distinction is weak. An openly homophobic opera singer is obviously going to make her colleagues uncomfortable, so you say that’s permissible to cancel.

    In Lisitsa’s case, what about Ukrainians in the TSO who don’t share her views – and might quite reasonably take offense at her characterization of Maidan-ers as neo-Nazis? Or just freedom and democracy advocates. If I were an orchestra musician, I would feel rather uncomfortable having her as a guest at my orchestra.

    • Hank says:

      I’d say if an opera singer s openly homophobic, he/she is in the wrong profession. Best that they migrate to heavy metal.

      • SDReader says:

        Maybe she did — because she has certainly vanished.

        • V.Lind says:

          Well, she’d be hard-pressed to find another opera company anywhere in the world where there were not prominent gays involved! Whatever the big Russian companies think…

  • william osborne says:

    The troubling implication is that people opposed to the political statements of artists could insure those artists are banned by threatening people’s safety. An example would be that Jews were banned from some concerts because brown shirts threatened to beat up those who attended.

  • Max Grimm says:

    “It acted in a practical, rather [th]an a political sense, and was right to do so.”

    That sentence sums up reality aptly. Whether an artist constitutes a risk to others seems to be largely defined by how damaging (in financial and public image terms) his/her retention will be to a given institution.
    Now which sentiments and convictions constitute risks and which ones do not is best answered by wily and circumspect PR practitioners.

  • Sherry says:

    Norman, have you actually seen her tweets? They’re hate speech. In America, we fire people from television shows, college campuses, etc all the time for that kind of violence-mongering. I don’t know honestly why you would align yourself with such an “artist.”

    • Delbert Grady says:

      “In America, we fire people from television shows, college campuses, etc all the time”

      Which only shows how bad things have become in America recently. Not a trend that any country that wishes to be regarded as “free” should want to follow.

      • Sherry says:

        It’s the freedom of speech of the employers to make those decisions. Why should TS keep a pianist whose hate speech comes to the foreground? They can admit they made a mistake and move on.

  • Jon H says:

    I wouldn’t have gone to Lisitsa’s concert anyway because she’s just a bit on the fast side. Rachmaninoff obviously wore his heart on his sleeve, so enjoy the beauty of the sound at a speed it can actually be enjoyed by your audience. And, something Jorge Bolet once said – try not to make it sound like a lot of notes.

    • Ppellay says:

      A bit on the fast side? So was Rachmaninoff himself in his recordings (and no, I don’t buy the notion that he did it like that because he needed to fit the music on 78 sides).

  • Yuri K says:

    How supporting Russian invasion in Ukraine and annexation of the part of the territory (Crimea) are “political views”? Political view is when somebody votes for liberals, while I for example support conservative party. Say an Iraqi artist openly support ISIS – will you qualify this as “political views”? I highly doubt it, but because no one cares about Ukraine… Don’t forget that she supports pro-Russian terrorists (rebels, opposition you name it) who shot down Malaysian plane (this fact has not been proven yet, however some preliminary conclusions have already been made by Dutch and other investigators).

    Can you imagine using words “political views” when German Nazis annexed part of Austria before WWII? Most of the comments here and in Western press I read are made by people who are far far away from knowing or at least understanding the situation in Ukraine.

    Also, please stop describing her position as “anti-government”, because it is anti-Ukrainian. One of the twits compares national Ukrainian outfit to African tribal dress (she posts a photo along with it). Even her twitter name NedoUkrainka mean sub-Ukrainian (read she means that Ukrainians are not even humans).

    Her twits are hate speech at least and it is a shame that talented artist like her gets involved in such dirty stuff.

    • Delbert Grady says:

      “her twitter name NedoUkrainka mean sub-Ukrainian (read she means that Ukrainians are not even humans ”

      Wrong. Your interpretation is the opposite of the truth. Here’s her own explanation of why she uses that name:

      “NedoUkraïnka” – a word roughly meaning “Sub-Ukrainian”, a stab at Ukrainian Prime Minister who called Russian-speaking Southern and Eastern Ukrainians “SUBHUMANS”! “

      • Gonout Backson says:

        It would be nice to have a source of this and a precise quotation. Maybe Miss Lissitsa gave them in her tweet? Because Russian propaganda is very prolific in the “scandalous quotations by political enemies” genre. Ask Alexei Navalny: even some “serious”, Western politicians are still quoting his “toast to the glory of the Holocaust” – which never happened.

  • John says:

    It’s a tough question. Furtwangler lost the Chicago Symphony position because Jews in the orchestra (and patrons) objected. Walter Gieseking was a well-known Nazi supporter. We all know about Wagner, but nobody ‘fires’ him. Flagstad (whose husband had a Nazi problem) underwent all kinds of difficulty finding her way back to the Met after WWII. Karajan and Schwartzkopf found their way back into the mainstream. People demonstrate against Gergiev, but he seems not to have been affected. If memory serves, Artur Rubinstein fired an entire nation (Germany) by never performing there after WWII. Bernstein had his own well-publicized views and they didn’t seem to keep him from finding work, but he was Bernstein.
    In Toronto, if it’s true that a major contributor had objections, money obviously talks, especially if it’s a lot of money. It’s nice to say that we all support freedom of speech, even unpopular speech, but in the end, the circumstances would seem to dictate the right direction to go. Personlly, I don’t like that an artist had a contract cancelled (but received her full fee — she wasn’t ‘fired’), but I can see how exigencies of the moment could make it necessary. I suppose if I was a Toronto Symphony patron, I could go into a big pout and refuse to give them money, but if everyone did that and the orchestra went out of business or had to fire a bunch of staff to make ends meet, some might find that self-defeating.

  • Janis says:

    It all comes down to one question: What is the difference between

    1) advocating politics and
    2) well … advocating genocide?

    I’m not asking this facetiously. The difference is obvious to me in that “I know it when I see it” way, but I’m sure that people in the second category will claim to be in the first, and those on the other side of a disagreement with someone in the first will insist that they are in the second.

    • David Rowe says:

      This is brilliant. Thank you for sharing a fabulously clever, articulate cartoon. I encourage people to take 10 seconds and follow this link!

    • Jules says:

      Spot on. Thank-you.

    • MWnyc says:

      Yup, that about sums it up – for all sides of any political or social divide.

      I’ve always been surprised at how many people misunderstand the First Amendment to the U.S. Constitution in the way this comic strip describes.

    • Theodore McGuiver says:

      It reminds me of an interview I read with an Iranian objector in the early 1980’s. He said, ‘No, no, you have freedom of speech here in Iran. You can say anything you want. It’s just what happens afterwards which can be a problem’.

    • Simon S. says:

      And don’t forget the mouseover!

  • Mark Morrison says:

    I’m not sure how public safety would have been in danger if Tamar Iveri had sung in Sydney. Did they expect the gay singers (or other singers, for that matter) to bitch slap Iveri during the performance? The audience to rush the stage, drag Iveri out of the hall, and hang her from a light post? That was a good excuse and perhaps there was something in Iveri’s contract that allowed the Opera to cancel in the case of public safety.
    In any case, I don’t see the cases of Ivery and Lisitsa to be very different. Both are twits who didn’t have the brains to keep their odious opinions to themselves. Hopefully, both will have great difficulty in the future in securing paying gigs.

    • Marguerite Foxon says:

      I agree with you. And the distinction drawn between the two artists – one sacking OK the other not – seems totally irrational to me. Hate twitter-speech on whatever subject, should be treated the same.

  • Gershon says:

    And the LPO4, Norman? How does your strident rejection of them fit this current (entirely contrived) schema?

  • Theodore McGuiver says:

    The big problem is not the views that people hold (see JOHN, above) but the fact that, thanks to social media and the masses permanently slouched over their smartphones, these views now hit the global newsstand in double-quick time to be readily picked up by those who, thanks to the internet, think they know a hell of a lot more about what’s going on in the world than their parents’ generation. The result is semi-informed cacophony with anonymous prole attacking his kind. Rarely does the ensuing debate progress beyond each contributor’s individual ideological comfort zone.

    It keeps people busy, though, when they could be reading, visiting art galleries or listening to music.

    • Michael Endres says:

      “The result is semi-informed cacophony with anonymous prole attacking his kind. Rarely does the ensuing debate progress beyond each contributor’s individual ideological comfort zone. It keeps people busy, though, when they could be reading, visiting art galleries or listening to music. ”

      Absolutely accurate ! Thank you !!!